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Promotional Items often Outlive the Company

When Gwen Davis, of Fair Hill, Md., sits down for breakfast with her husband, Jim, her Delaware Trust coffee mug is filled as much with meaning as with café au lait.

The venerable institution -- whose name vanished in 1996 -- was where the couple met in 1968. Jim Davis spent his career with the bank and several of its successors.

"I was going to save the mug for my children," Gwen Davis said. "And then I decided to use it because it won't have the same meaning for anybody else."

The name of MBNA Corp., Delaware's largest private employer, has already begun to fade in the wake of its takeover by Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America. Davis urged MBNA employees to preserve some keepsake of their time with the company. Bank founder Charles M. Cawley said he's looking for an original MBNA sign.

You don't have to be a former CEO to be nostalgic when your company's name disappears. Delawareans report cherishing all sorts of trinkets emblazoned with the name of a former employer.

Some treasured items were given out only to insiders, such as lapel pins for employees. Others items -- like golf balls -- were created as promotional items in an effort to build brand loyalty. Yet, such trinkets, originally handed out for a strictly business purpose, can become imbued with priceless memories.

"I have my old uniform in the blue and peach colors," said Robin Chew of the Howard Johnson Restaurant and Ice Cream Shop work clothes she wore until it became the Hollywood Grill in 2003. "I'll keep it forever for the memories."

Roger Bellamy, who joined the Strawbridge & Clothier company in 1960 as a 21-year-old shoe salesman at the Merchandise Mart (now Merchants Square) in Fox Point, still has his pin recognizing 25 years of service. The company name was changed to Strawbridge's in 1996 when the retailer was sold to May Department Stores Co. Bellamy, who met his wife at the store, also has a company anniversary mug he doesn't use.

"I want to save it," said Bellamy, an area sales manager with Strawbridge's.

Those who treasure momentos from their vanished companies actually are engaging in a form of self-therapy, psychologists said.

"The items evoke warm and fuzzy memories -- and that's important to people's equilibrium. Analysts charge $100 an hour to help you feel better. For less than $100, you can look around your living room and see the glass with the decal on it and feel better," said Arthur B. Shostak, a professor emeritus of sociology at Drexel University.

Alice D. Domar, a psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said the need to hang on to a tangible item is a byproduct of the rapidly changing business world.

"In the past, a blacksmith was a blacksmith his whole life," she said. Even in the post-World War II period, many people expected to join a company out of high school or college -- and stay there until retirement.

Contrast that with the experience of those at the tail end of the baby boom. The group born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 10 jobs from age 18 to 38, according to a 2004 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Change is stressful. Even stuff that's good is hard to adapt to," Domar said. "We tend to want to keep things around us that remind us of things that are familiar and comfortable."

Workers also tend to idealize their employment at a company once it disappears, Shostak said. That too, is a healthy response because 90 percent of the success in moving on is in positively framing your past, he said. "A memory glow is a way of bolstering one's own mental health," he said.

Unique rewards from investment:
Though corporate souvenirs were created for a commercial purpose, they take on almost a magical quality once a company disappears, Shostak said.

Kurt M. Landgraf, former CEO of the DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co. in Wilmington, said he still drinks coffee out of a DuPont Merck mug daily because it makes him feel good. The DuPont Merck name died in 1998 when it became DuPont Pharmaceuticals. That name was jettisoned after the pharmaceutical company sold in 2001.

"Almost 10 years later, why do I still drink my coffee out of a DuPont Merck mug? I've moved on in my life," said Landgraf, CEO of Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. "It's because it brings back great memories. There are actually times I just sit and stare at that logo."

Pat Williams of New Castle, a waitress with Hollywood Grill who spent about 20 years with Howard Johnson Restaurant, said it always makes her happy to see her name badge in her jewelry box. "Once in a while I take it out and look at it. It does make you feel good," she said.

Calvert A. Morgan Jr., who was chairman and CEO of Bank of Delaware, an institution whose name changed to PNC Bank Delaware in 1994, still has a piggy bank given out in 1970, the same year he joined the bank as a management trainee. It's is in the shape of the company's headquarters building.

Harold L. Slatcher, CEO of County Bank in Rehoboth Beach, saved all his service awards -- pins, tie clips and rings -- from his 26 years at Sussex Trust Co. He started at the bank in 1963 as a head teller in the Laurel branch. The Sussex Trust name vanished in 1992 when it was acquired by Wilmington Trust Co. "It was a fun place to be," Slatcher said.

Creating camaraderie:
Memorabilia can also unite people in a shared, feel-good moment, experts said.

Fred C. Sears II, CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation in Wilmington, kept an umbrella decorated with Beneficial National Bank, the name of the institution he worked at until it was acquired in 1998. The umbrellas were given out at the Beneficial tent at the Point-to-Point event at Winterthur.

"When I see people on the street carrying the umbrella, they give me the 'hi' sign by pumping them up and down. They yell: I'm still carrying it," Sears said.

Frank "Skip" Pennella, director of external affairs with CAI, an information technology company in Wilmington, keeps a crystal jar on his desk from the days when he headed Marine Midland Bank Delaware. Marine Midland's name was dissolved in the late 1990s.

"It's a cool logo with a ship on it. People ask: What's that? For me, it's a conversation piece," Pennella said.

Elizabeth A. Browning, CEO of LLuminari Inc., a media company in Wilmington, said her husband gave his son a DuPont Merck pen he found in the house as a Christmas present. Browning's stepson had worked for DuPont Merck.

"It brought a big smile to his face," said Browning, who also worked for DuPont Merck.

Sign of success:
Heidelore Rowan, corporate brand manager with the DuPont Co., calls the promotional items "leave-behinds." The purpose is strictly to keep the brand fresh in people's minds, she said.

The fact that people want to save something shows the brand was "successful beyond their wildest dreams," Pretell said. "In a sense, people don't want it to die."

This could explain why some people regret not picking up a souvenir when a company changes names. Others find themselves buying mementos at yard sales or in resale shops.

"I wish I had saved something from Howard Johnson. I worked there for 30 years," said Margit Dawson of Wilmington, a cashier at Hollywood Grill.

MBNA items have already taken on collectible value, said Linda Marvel, owner of Grandmas' Treasures in Holly Oak. As soon at the news hit that the name would be changed, dealers went on the hunt to find MBNA items at low prices, she said.

Some MBNA items, primarily NASCAR-related goods, are available on eBay, as are items related to former state companies, such as Farmers Bank of the State of Delaware.

"Very rarely do people want to buy them until a company name disappears. It doesn't have the memory value until it's gone," Marvel said.

By Maureen Milford, The News Journal, 01/08/2006
Reprinted with permission from The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware.